14 February 2021
Real Life
Brandon Taylor


Originally posted on @bamboo.reads

For someone who loved FX's You're The Worst and Tony Tulathimutte's Private Citizens, another book about inherently unlikeable characters doing inherently problematic things sounds a lot like my cup of tea. However, Brandon Taylor's debut novel Real Life is more akin to Garth Greenwell's novels with a major difference that the solitude its protagonist feels is enhanced by navigating a society that perpetuates a devaluation of his race, doubled by carrying an unspeakable trauma that invades his present life. The narrative is as bleak as it sounds, without ever going the easier route of using humor or snark to shrug off the pain, as if to underline that some problems (societal or personal) need to be looked at deeper to the point where it isn't comfortable anymore, to find some semblance of grace. It's a well-trodden tale of an outcast looking for his place in a community, however different that may be from what he expects. But it also sneaks in a reminder that maybe it's our expectations of what people are in our lives that prevents us from being happy.

I didn't like the novel as much as I thought I would. I'm lucky that I've been surrounded by great friends all my life, so it takes a while for me to empathize with misanthropes (see also Noah Baumbach's Greenberg). However, if there's one thing that the events of the latter half of the 2010s taught us (from Trump to #METOO), it's to not discount the experiences of others just because we don't agree with them. Sometimes, telling the plainspoken truth the way this novel does, might just be what we need to survive.


The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It's unfair because white people have a vested interested in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects.
. . .
Silence is their way of getting by, because if they are silent long enough, then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it never happened.
. . .
Decisions were made every day about what sort of life they wanted, and they always answered the same: Only this, only this. But that was the misery of trying to become something, misery that you could put up with because it was native to the act of trying. But there are other kinds of misery, the misery that comes from other people.
. . .
This too is real life, he thinks. Not merely the accumulation of tasks, things to be done and sorted, but also bumping up against other lives, everyone in the world insignificant when taken and observed together.
. . .
There comes a time when you have to acknowledge your limitations, that the capacity to do something is not a mandate to do it.
. . .
There is sex in the mind, which follows from the identification of objects of sexual potential. Indeed, the sexual potential is but the shadow of sexual possibility projected forward; we know we want someone when we encounter them because of what could come if we just reach out and say it: Hey, look at me.
. . .
When he sees a good body going around in the world, he finds he's unable to look away from both it and himself. The truly awful thing about beauty is that it reminds us of our limits. Beauty is a kind of unrelenting cruelty. It takes the truth, hones it to a terrifying keenness, and uses it to slice us to the bone.